"What Are We to the Stars?": Neurosis' Steve Von Till Gets Deep on the Majestic Splendor of Idaho
We speak to the psych-metal legend about his badass new solo record, and staying punk in the country.
Idaho is shaped like a gun.
It is a state obsessed with rights supposedly God-given: of puritan American values, of Adam-and-Eve and not Adam-and-Steve, of pistols in holsters at the grocery store. Just like the California coast or the blur of Manhattan, it is a place that lures those seeking a different kind of truth. The government will not bother you here. You can have a mountain in your backyard. You will see a moose in the road. A bear. Maybe, a wolf — but don't you dare defend those drooling hell-beasts.
People come to escape, to disappear, to surrender to nature and space and quiet and find themselves in the cracks in between.
For more than a decade, this is the place Steve Von Till has called home. But it is here, in dark forests of the Gem State, where the steely-eyed Neurosis guitarist and singer continues the unabashed DIY lifestyle he started for himself in the Bay Area 30 years ago. Today, he runs the Neurot Recordings label, works as a schoolteacher, jets out of town on the weekend to write with Neurosis (he says they're working on a new record), and carves out new psychedelic sounds in his backyard studio as a part of his solo project Harvestman. Most recently, he's added a new album to his self-titled project discography: a solo record called A Life Unto Itself, which drops on May 5.
It's an album that drives home Von Till's unique brand of "rural psychedelia," and, in some ways, shows everything the man is capable of. A Life Unto Itself combines the complex acid-trip of Harvestman with the piledriving thick of Neurosis guitars, and Von Till's own past solo stuff: a gothic take on Celtic and folk music. It's spare at the start, and transcends into something cerebral and haunting.
We got on the phone on a chilly Sunday evening to talk about the "rural psychedelia" sound of his new record, but meandered into a conversation about how he fits into the Idaho culture, dragging corpses off a mountainside and realizing your infinitesimal place in the universe.
Noisey: It's been seven years since your last solo record. What's gone into the process of putting that together?
Steve Von Till: It's always cooking in the back of my mind. I don't really have a good sense of time, like when people say it's been seven years I'm like, "What?! No." Some of the ideas have been around since not long after the last one came out. And others were quite recent.
For me, it's a really heavy album. It's definitely not like my other ones. I rarely know what I'm writing about. I'm not a storyteller. It's not that kind of music — it's more like abstract snippets of my life and my way of viewing the world and the natural world around me. And all the influences of the physical world and the spirit world all kind of jumbled up in there. It just kind of comes out. I realized that after I put this one together and I was hearing it back, it was extremely reflective—self-reflective. Not just of the time since the last album, but of my entire life and the entire journey. And it really hit me—the importance of it to me. And I think it's my strongest material to date for sure. It feels very different, like I'm taking what I've learned in all my music-making previous and pushing myself in some ways and some new territory. And becoming better at some of the things I'm strong at. It really felt very organic, very natural. Working with Randall Dunn was amazing. He helped me feel very comfortable, and helped bring it all out.
Your past solo work has been so spare, so I'd think the storytelling happening on the album would be so important. How has that story evolved?
It does end up telling a story. And it absolutely is the story. But it's not linear. It's not situational. It's not a single song… could be touching on ten or 12 different moments in my life. To me, it's a jumbled abstract collage. But I think because it's open and it's not told in a way where the listener is not encouraged to be voyeuristic, but they're encouraged to invest their own life and experience into the music. I think it becomes the story of anyone willing to let the emotional tone in.
I think that comes after not giving a shit what anyone else thinks about it. I think when people get trapped in the ego attachment or the expectation, it must happen to everybody on some level, but you just can't worry about outside factors. You have to make the music that moves you and that you feel, and the listeners be damned. The need to create it is the need to stay sane in a crazy world. And that really is the end all, be all. Of course there's internal pressures that I want to outdo my past efforts, and I know people will be reviewing this or listening to it and I don't want them to think it's a pile of shit. But what I have learned is to trust the process. Any type of artist, you do your art, if you're the type of artist that shares it with the world in some way, you have to put it out there and let it go. You have no control after that.
Yeah but have you always thought that way?
No. [Laughs] I definitely learned. I've been doing music professionally, or at least super seriously, with Neurosis, since I was a teenager. I had to grow and mature and not get pissed off at somebody for a bad review. I think it took a while to understand that that's not important.
In my mind, being a fan means you evolve with the band. You might not like something your favorite band does, but it's their right in their creative process to do things that don't make sense.
Of course it's a part of our world—we read magazines and blogs and fanzines, and we're interested in what certain people have to say so we can get some idea of the music so we can go check it out or not. So in that way I find reviewing helpful.
I'm sure that Neurosis has seen its share of criticism for doing things differently.
We've had to endure that our entire career. Starting off as a sort of oddball hardcore band out of the Bay Area, growing up in the DIY punk scene and then turning what we turned into—we had to weather a lot of storms of disappointing people over and over and over again. But luckily, the majority of people who really understood what we were trying to express in our primitive teenage psychedelic angst the only way we knew how—people who understand what was underlying—have been able to follow us through all of these other changes. Changes that sounded like growing pains. When we first got keyboards, people though we were complete sell-outs. It was so we could integrate what we heard in Joy Division and Throbbing Gristle. It's not totally out of the blue here.
But not everybody is going to want anything more from their favorite bands than what they already love.
Yeah, I mean, some bands should lock into their groove. You can't argue with AC/DC and Motörhead and The Ramones. That's the groove you should treasure and cherish. But the type of spiritual element that we're tapping into requires growth, and stagnation is the death of it. I think the same is true for the solo stuff. My first one was by accident. It was just recording. I made because I had a multi-track reel-to-reel in my bedroom and I had these quiet songs in my head. The world was quiet outside in the city. Eventually after years of that I realized I had a whole body of material that didn't belong with Neurosis and Tribes of Neurot.
This latest one, I've taken what I've learned with that kind of stuff and nodding to these styles of music that I hold dear and inspire me, but I'm not a traditionalist. I'm not a traditional Celtic player, I'm not a traditional Western player. But I nod to those traditions in my own kind of unique way and primitive way of finding myself through certain melodies—and that I've learned through the Harvestman project: home-recording psychedelia and turning things into textures and using the studio as an instrument.
I brought that element in really heavy on this new one, really adding these textures and psychedelic synth-like things at times. Really pushing it to new places.
It's hard not to see the influence of nature into your solo work. The past stuff is so much about stone and soil and grass and moons—talk about your relation to the pastoral.
I think some of those are the most powerful metaphors as poets and writers and songwriters, I think. Depending on your perspective on any given day, that which seems so important to us in any given moment is so minimal in the grand scheme of things. What are we to the ocean? What are we to the stars? What are we to the wilderness? Pretty pathetic little creatures, really. [Yet] part of that is the glory that allows us to create art and music, it's this… I don't know? Bizarre evolutionary trait to consider our own existence instead of just going with our instincts. I think art is a strange combination of both. I think it's part instinctual and part self-reflective. I think the natural world provides not only these great metaphors—that's probably how I use it most is emotional metaphors. It's in nature where I, personally, find—with the one exception being making music, is where I find the most solitude and the most peace of mind. Walking through nature and just being, and soaking it in, and trying to be a part of it.
I know we've talked before about the pull of the land, but that need to balance being a city person in a rural place.
I guess I'm always struggling to find that balance. For me, because it is a busy life that I've chosen and am called upon—having a full-time job and running a record label and having several music projects and being a husband and a father—sometimes I don't know how to get it all done. But it used to be, "God, I'd like to get into the trees and relax," and I'd have to take a trip. And when the hell do you have time to go and take a trip? Not often enough for my soul to stay sane. Now my drive home from work is 11 miles down a country road through mountains and trees. It's always there and all I have to do is open the window or look out the door. Sure the business has followed me to a certain extent. But I've also learned how to relax. If Mother Nature is going to drop a couple feet of snow on you, your life is going to change.
Yeah, that's not for everybody.
There's certain things that can't wait. You have to get the firewood in. You have to deal with the snow. You have to take the time to be a part of your environment. You know? And looking back at city life, people are so inconvenienced by nature. To be able to find a joy in it, to actually revel in it to a certain extent —not that it can't be a pain in the ass. Icy roads are a pain in the ass. But I'd much rather have the reason why I can't get to my car to get to work on time because there's a moose between my front door and the car than if there's some fucking drive by. Or some fucking police action happening outside the door. It's much different.
I'm endlessly fascinated with Idaho. What's the most Idaho thing that's happened to you?
Encounters with animals. Being way out in the outback and not being completely sure of where I am. Being way out in it, in weather. Being on top of some mountain and helping somebody pack an elk out in the dark down an entire mountain, and having 150 pounds strapped on your back, slipping in wet steep thickety-thicket. There's been several of those moments. Just like, wow, this is really getting a little bit of taste of mountain man business. For some people they've grown up with it, but things like that for me are still a total adventure.
It's different types of people. It's not like I can walk down to the record store and talk to somebody about music. There's those kind of things that you think you kind of crave once in a while, then you get back in the city for ten minutes, you're like, "Oh! This sucks!" The only thing I like to do in cities is play a Neurosis show, go record shopping, go to a museum, get some killer food, and get the hell out.